Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Bair museum presents intimate look at a Montana family's taste and fortune

The Bair family home in tiny Martinsdale may be toured, its treasures viewed. 

Montana sheep baron Bair made millions; daughters' left home, splendid museum to public 


MARTINSDALE isn't more than a tiny spot on the Montana map, but it has a larger than life museum and an unusual inn that takes one back in time.
We headed Martinsdale way recently for my uncle, Harry A. Cosgriffe's memorial.
Within the gates, a fascinating home tour and
beautiful modern museum await your pleasure.
That meant traveling through several green and gorgeous Montana counties -- including Stillwater, Sweetgrass and Musselshell, and along some of Montana's most picturesque rivers and mountains.
PASSING NYE, Dean, Absarokee, Columbus, Reed Point and Big Timber, we departed the interstate and turned north for Harlowton. Then, thirty miles more, past Two Dot and fields of golden wheat and rich yellow canola, we arrived in the shadow of the Crazy Mountains, at the town of  Martinsdale.
We left our bags at the Crazy mountain Inn, (our next story spotlights this rustic and relaxing jewel). Proprietor Cheryl Marchi, checked us into the turn-of-century inn then sent us off to the museum. She urged us to try the inn's famous homemade pies later. More about the inn, in our next post!
The Bair sisters' fondness for "all things French" is apparent.
BACK ON the road a mile or so, we were met by husband-wife docents Don and Paulette Amundson at the Charles M. Bair Family Museum. The complex is the star of tiny Martinsdale. A state-of-the-art museum sits adjacent to a barn-turned-giftshop and the sprawling 26-room Bair family home. The museum features beautiful galleries showcasing the family's extensive collections of western and contemporary art, photographs and native American beadwork, leggings, elk tooth dresses and ceremonial pipes and attire. The home is a treasure trove.
Native rock was used to integrate the museum's look
with the landscape and the Bair mansion.
WITH ITS sleek, airy interior, contemporary lines and modern art preservation technology, the four-gallery museum could be at home on a Los Angeles street corner or in Midtown Manhattan.
Alberta Bair, one of two sisters of sheep and railroad baron Charles M. Bair and his wife, Mary, was the last of the family to occupy the house and her final car, a spiffy white Cadillac, is still parked in the garage. It looks as if it's waiting for her to bounce through the back door in one
of her favorite red hats, and drive into Billings for a concert.
French flair and western comfort are part of the ambiance of the Bair home.
DOCENT DON took us on a delightful one-hour stroll through the home, which is filled with antiques, paintings and silver acquired on trips to New York and Europe. From a Louis XV marquetry inlaid table to English porcelain and tea urns, the home is a tribute to deep pockets and fine taste, a western style palace for our own version of royalty. Some historians trace the family's roots to European royals!
THE BAIR progeny, Alberta and her sister Marguerite, had no heirs. Inheriting the family fortune, they made collecting and the goal of a museum their child.
The complex is a major beneficiary of the Bair money, and was Alberta's brainchild according to a plan set forth in the will at her death in May of 1993.
In one of my many interviews with her, she mentioned her desire that a museum be established on the grounds.  Other museums -- the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyo., and Great Falls' C.M.
The Bair barn makes a handsome and educational gift shop.
Russell Museum -- may have hoped that the extensive Bair western art collection might come their way.
But the Martinsdale museum came to be, opening finally in June of 2011, 18 years after Alberta's death.
I WROTE HER newspaper obituary, which lists the many organizations and causes to which she contributed and which the trust continues to endow: hospitals and clinics, libraries, schools, youth agencies, and many other cultural and humanitarian causes. Annual scholarships are still awarded to students in nearby schools,  according to trust dictates.
ALBERTA'S "special late baby," as she once called it, lives on, along with the museum.  The Alberta Bair Theater in Billings, the old Fox Theater, was built in 1931 on the site where Alberta was born and renamed after a multi-million dollar remodeling. (I spent more than a decade heading that effort.)
Docent Don Amundson guides guests from the museum
toward the Bair family home, for a lively tour.
The Fox restoration, history and Alberta's decision to contribute a million dollars to the "Save the Fox" effort will be the subject of another story later this summer.
MEANWHILE, the Martinsdale museum doors open onto a walkway to the home. Docents take guests on a lively journey to the roots and legacy of the Bair fortune. The tour gives insight into Alberta's decision to make certain the Bair name is forever part of Montana's and the West's history.  With a $3.1 million pricetag, the museum houses the family's coveted Charlie Russells and Joseph Sharps as well as my favorite European and American contemporary paintings and rare, light sensitive photographs of Edward Curtis.
NATIVE AMERICAN artifacts are
Contemporary European art resides comfortably with western and Asian.
housed in climate and light-controlled glass cases and a "revolving exhibit" gallery showcases such rare treats as the present Crow and Gros Ventre Indian Ledger Art.
The elder Bair lived in the1930s ranch home less than 10 years, having taken the family to Portland, Oregon from 1910 to 1934. He died in 1943 and his wife in 1950.  Marguerite, who had married the ranch foreman Dave Lamb in 1939, lived in the family home with Lamb and Alberta until their deaths -- Alberta's the last, at age 97 in 1993.
We strolled through the home -- past photos, paintings and memorabilia in formal dining and receiving rooms and informal den -- admiring portraits autographed by a half-dozen presidents, and studio shots of movie stars, including Montana born Clark Gable.
 This urn was acquired during  European travels.
COWBOY ARTIST and author Will James, who lived for a time in Billings, is represented in a photo with Alberta -- both of them in hats -- and they spent time together when both were young.
A solid gold door nob is valued at around $20,000.
Our Atlanta guests admired the home, remarking that the Bairs inveted their fortune in much the same fashion as did other early 20th Century barons and moguls: on bronzes, paintings, china, gold fixtures and accents. Bair came to Montana in 1883, at age 26, as conductor of the Northern Pacific Railroad. He acquired his fortune in the Alaskan Gold Rush, parlaying it into oil, mining, real estate and ranching, including the world's largest sheep spread, more than 300,000 head.
THE MUSEUM and home illustrate what fhe family did with his money -- in cohesive, exciting displays, the result of the artful intelligence of museum curator and director Elizabeth Guheen. She sees the entire complex as "a collage -- vivid, idiosyncratic and alive."
As she developed the museum's rooms, drawing from the sisters' collections, a video of Alberta and newspaper clippings, she took care to inspire, guide and "expand our dialogue with history," a primary goal of Alberta's.
After their parents died, the Bair sisters made
A vintage 1950s kitchen is part of the tour of the Bair Museum and home.
frequent forays to Europe, collecting art and silver and china.  They furnished the home with Chippendale and other name brand furnishings and expanded the elder Bairs' collection of Indian art, beadwork and rugs.
The vintage 1950s kitchen is fun -- the girls liked bright reds and blues -- and the ornate bedrooms are left much as the two left them -- with frocks hung awaiting a dinner party, crystal, linens and favorite paintings. (The original artwork is in the museum; but the digitally reproduced copies hang mostly where the Bair sisters originally placed them.)
 PLAN A couple days, to take in the museum and enjoy the scenery and the Crazy Mountain Inn's relaxing ambiance.
To plan your Martinsdale weekend, go to:
Martinsdale's Crazy Mountain Inn is next up at:

COMING UP: Next up, a close-up of the Crazy Mountain Inn, with its unique ambiance and terrific cream pies. Our family spent a recent fun weekend there.  Then we travel to Egypt and Brazil, looking at the people and lifestyles and examining the change and politics. We'll also take a look at my attempt to integrate death and loss into daily life.
And we answer a request, to show off our Montana locale, High Chaparral, and share what we do and see when we're in the Rockies.
Remember to explore, learn and live and tune us in Wednesdays and Saturdays at:

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